Thursday, December 18, 2008

They Just Want to Kill Us (Article# 99B) 12/4/08

As I prepared to leave the USA and ran my last minute errands, I heard the initial reports of terrorist activity in Mumbai, India. Immersed as I was in my own activities, I did not follow the news closely. It was not until I was at minyan that I heard about the attack on the chabad house, and with the confusion and chaos that went on – it was only after I had returned home and was watching CNN a few minutes before Shabbat began that we heard reports of the killing of the people in the chabad house.

Much will be written and said about these tragic events. The Israeli government will certainly use the funerals as a “see what victims we are” platform (they won’t necessarily be wrong). Yet this particular attack, pointed at a “Jewish” target tugs at the heart of the average Israeli in a more personal way than other people. For several reasons.

We are after all, a country that is sadly all too familiar with the sight of a baby screaming for his missing mother or father. We experience such tragedies with a frequency that would not be tolerated in the USA or other major nations. Yet that is a story for another day.

We are also the country upon whom our enemies have drawn a large target and would gleefully obliterate if they could. We know what it means to have people infiltrate our cities and homes and seek to murder and maim. Their goal is not to make a point other than attempting to make us so miserable that we would do anything to appease them. And appeasement hasn’t worked. But that too is for another time.

It is the specific target, a Chabad house, which has struck a cord here. Jews from many countries are certainly familiar with Chabad. Many of those who come from other countries (not Israel) and travel on business or pleasure have come to recognize that they can find a minyan and often a meal in the most remote of places – simply by seeking out the local Chabad house representatives. Israelis, even many secular ones and those who are not observant but still consider themselves to be traditional, identify with the Chabad network as a home away from home as well.

Many Israelis, upon completing their military or national service and before entering University or the workplace, take a months long trip of discovery. They travel to various places worldwide and armed with their backpacks they seek to experience whatever the world has to offer. A vast majority of these youth are not religious and are quite comfortable traveling in the remote countryside.

As they travel and reach major cities, they will invariably find themselves drawn to the local Chabad house where they are always welcomed with a smile and warm greeting. Be it for a minute, a meal or even a Shabbat, Israelis come to Chabad for that brief taste of home, reconnecting with their identity as Jews – religious or not.

To deliberately target such a place (and make no mistake – the Chabad House was deliberately targeted) reminds all of us here in Israel just how much we are hated. It reminds we who live in the Jewish State that no matter where we go in the world and how much kindness we dispense, that our enemies seek nothing less than our total annihilation and obliteration. It sometimes takes a tragedy such as this to remind us, no matter what our backgrounds or beliefs, to reach across boundaries and grieve as one people and one nation for the loss of so many precious lives, Jew and non Jew alike.

I often bemoan the lack of Achdut that is displayed here in Israel. I am disappointed that we can no longer seem to bond together as one Jewish nation with tolerance and love for one another, no matter what our differences. It is unfortunate that it takes such a tragedy to force us to find some common ground.

So today Israel is transfixed by the images and stunned by the savagery. Yet, we also know too familiarly what happens after the cameras turn off and the world is no longer watching. We know what it means to raise orphans. We have consoled countless parents who have buried their children before their time. We have rebuilt and will continue to do so. We understand that we must never allow terrorism to win.

That sense of “I will never let you defeat me” was reflected by Rav Metzger in his eulogy and by Shimon Peres in his, but it was most strikingly demonstrated by Rivkah Holtzberg’s parents’ decision to be the new Directors of the Mumbai Chabad. Their commitment, to continue to do good despite the pain and harm they have suffered, is what our nation is all about.

Support Your Local Library (Article# 99A) 12/4/08

I love the public library system. When we lived in the USA, I took advantage of the library in every city I lived in. I am an avid reader and can (and often do) finish a 300-400 page book in a single Friday night sitting. I even took advantage of the technological advances in Web design, reserving books online and picking them up on my arrival at the library (reducing my average library trip from 40 minutes to 3 minutes).

Since Aliyah I have come to appreciate the USA public library system much more than I had in the past. The library is literally my home away from home when I travel. It is the only place where they offer a place to sit, free internet access (including wireless access so that I can check emails on my laptop) and a ton of peace and quiet – all with zero pressure to buy a coffee or vacate a table for the next patron. You don’t realize what a treat it is to be able to sit and check emails, update yourself with some online news (especially news from home when you are traveling) and get work done until you are traveling and have limited access to the internet.

My favorite library is my home base library, the Hewlett-Woodmere library in Long Island. This was our local library before we made Aliyah and the facility is just awesome. They have a series of private study rooms available for residents and non-residents alike. Whenever I need to check emails, have a skype call chavruta with an alumnus, get information from the Yeshiva’s database or even sit and write my weekly article, I head off to the library, ensconce myself in one of their private rooms for an hour or two and really crank out the work.

It is also a great place to meet people. Almost every time I am there I come across some old friend that I hadn’t seen. It is a great place to reconnect with people and I am quite grateful for the use of it.

Upon our move we discovered that Israel does not have public libraries as such. Libraries may occasionally be funded by a local municipality, but it is the member subscription fees and donations that are the large part of library budgets in Israel. And the budgets aren’t that large.

Our local Bet Shemesh library does not buy books in English, using only books that have been donated to the library to stock its English shelves. The Hebrew language section is definitely larger than the English section, but not by a huge amount. The entire library is housed within one of our community centers and is probably smaller than the school libraries in a couple of your local Yeshivot – but it is what we have and we definitely patronize it (we have 4 memberships for the kids).

Since the resources are limited, there is a limit of how many books (4) each member can have at any time. They also rely a lot upon volunteers (although they have a very professional staff as well who have to be knowledgeable in order to serve their patrons in either of the two main languages they carry books in). On the flipside, without the fully stocked library, our kids have become a lot more computer and internet literate in order to use online resources for school research and other work (their parents have to also be savvy in monitoring internet use as well).

*If you would be interested in donating books to the Bet Shemesh library – feel free to email me and I will forward the offer.*

Throughout my trip, I was asked how the economy of Israel is faring and how badly the US problems have affected us. It is clear to see how difficult things have become in America and it was nice to see the concern for us as well. There is also no doubt that things in Israel will also get worse before they get better.

The dollar’s weakness has hurt all tourist related industries (of which we must include the Yeshiva and Seminary one year programs as a part). The dollar simply buys less and this has hurt budgets. Additionally, at least in the case of charitable organizations, with incomes shrinking or disappearing overseas, we not only get fewer shekels for each dollar donated – we are definitely seeing fewer dollars donated as a whole. There is no question that we are only beginning to see the repercussions from the worldwide recession.

One of the great pleasures of my job is hanging out with our students and alumni. As part of my trips abroad I schedule regular visits to as many college campuses as I can, visiting our alumni in their “natural habitat”. Since each student has his own schedule, I schedule at least 3 hours for each visit to allow for them to come say hi when they do not have a class. So I usually set up shop in the campus kosher cafeteria and let the guys come to me.

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around I was definitely ready to go home. I was amazed at how little traffic I encountered on the way to Newark airport, which was practically empty. I pulled in to the rental car return lot and was trying to figure out what was missing when it hit me, there were no cars there. I think the entire lot had 10 cars in it.

The terminals were also quite deserted. With the exception of the El Al counter, there was almost no one in the airport; getting through security and to the gate was a breeze. Of course, since it was Thanksgiving, most Americans wanting to be in Israel for the week had already flown and the plane was almost totally Israeli.

I was a bit disappointed to be leaving that afternoon. Goldie’s family was having an afternoon get together and it would have been nice to see everyone. Maybe next time. The good part was getting home to the family.

I didn’t end up missing the turkey in the end. Dennis and Rachel Lisbon, our across the street neighbors invited us for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Upon hearing that I would be out of the country, they postponed the invitation one day and we enjoyed a Thanksgiving style seuda on Friday night.

PS Thanks for praying for Friday rain. Little league was rained out – only 7 more months of Fridays left to go.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Back in the USA (Article# 98) 11/27/08

I was preparing to attend Daniel Gottlieb’s (son of Mark and Miriam Gottlieb of Neve Daniel – formerly of Cedarhurst) Bar Mitzva celebration last Sunday evening when I chanced to glance at my email. Larry Gordon had sent me a brief note asking, “I see that there's a strike at BG (Ben Gurion Airport).....what’s the impact?” To which I responded, “OH NO!!!!!!!!!”

Earlier in the week I had been a bit concerned about a possible strike. The airport workers union had conducted a slowdown with the threat of a strike, but when they were ordered back to work by the courts, I assumed that it would be weeks before there was any possibility that there could be problems. These things usually run in cycles and we appeared to be weeks away from the next conflagration.

Apparently the union had a different playbook than mine. At about 5:30 in the afternoon (my flight was midnight) the workers staged a wildcat strike, walking off the job. By the time I had gotten Larry’s email an hour later, flights were already delayed and there was general chaos in trying to get information. The only thing I knew for certain was that I no longer needed to plan on leaving early to do some duty free shopping; I was getting ready for a long flight delay.

We enjoyed the Bar Mitzva. Mazal Tov to the Gottlieb family. They live in Neve Daniel which is very close to Efrat. Being at the Bar Mitzva, we saw a bunch of old friends who live in the area and whom we never get to see. With the kids keeping us scheduled for carpools and a lot of our free time spent trying to see family for things like my sister Bluma’s birthday dinner at Papagaio (all you can eat meat!) – we rarely have time for going out and being seen. So it is a special treat to go to an outside of Bet Shemesh event.

After a couple of hours of posturing, the strike ended and the airport resumed normal operations. In the end, dozens of flights were delayed – but not mine. I almost wish it was cancelled.

I have begun to sit in the window seat. I used to think that the aisle would be more conducive to stretching out and relaxing, but I was never able to get comfortable enough in one to sleep. I find that having the wall to lean against in the window seat facilitates being able to actually sleep.

I had settled into my seat on the plane when a flight attendant approached me with a request for me to switch seats. There was a chareidi passenger who was assigned a middle seat next to (gasp) a woman. Would it e possible for me to switch seats with her so that he would sit down and the plane could take off.

My initial thought was to refuse. I was settled in and comfortable. However, I have sat on a plane that was delayed almost an hour because a single passenger refused to sit down. Not wanting a replay of that, I decided it would be easier to just say yes.

A few minutes after takeoff they turned on the video service and started serving drinks. After some confusion, it became apparent that the video units in my row (and the rows in front and behind me) were totally out. While this was disappointing, the real crushing moment happened when they turned off the lights and we discovered that our individual seat lights weren’t working either. So, without being able to watch or read, we sat in our seats doing nothing (I did manage to get 4 hours of sleep). Suffice it to say that I was quite cranky at the end of the flight.

I always forget how cold it is in the USA. No matter how warm a fall or winter you may be having, it takes me at least 2 days to get used to the temperatures. Of course, coming in the middle of a cold snap doesn’t help. However, by the third day or so, I am back to running around without a coat.

As I mentioned last week, I represented our Yeshiva at the 5 Towns Israel Night (among others) and had a chance to see many old friends while there. This year’s senior class is Chaim’s class; he would have been graduating High School in June had we not moved. I therefore know a lot of the kids and parents from school, shul, little league, etc.

Seeing their sons was quite a shock. Having been away for 2+ years, I had not adjusted my mental picture of them to allow for continued growth and maturity. Even though Chaim has undergone the same growth and I should have anticipated it in his peers, I didn’t make the adjustment. I think it is the same shock I have with the weather. I should know in my mind that it will be cold, but I don’t really adjust to it until I am forced to.

This has been one of the longest stretches that I have been continuously home without a trip overseas. This means that by the time I get to NY several suitcases worth of stuff for us has accumulated (including all the stuff that Goldie and “daughters” ordered online). Goldie emailed me a shopping list of those all important last minute items that I needed to pick up as well.

Bringing in American products is a major part of the Aliyah experience for many. There are those who eschew all trappings of their former lives and fanatically deny themselves those things that are either impossible or ridiculously expensive to get in Israel. We are not one of those families.

I am not talking about luxury goods. A simple brick of American Cheese costs $20+ in Israel (depending on the store and the prevailing exchange rate). We go through a couple of these each month and the extra cost adds up (as does the weight of shlepping these in my suitcase). Crocs brand shoes are more than double the price in Israel and are the norm for footware for the kids. So the ability to “import” your personal goods is a big benefit for the traveling oleh.

The search for “couriers” traveling to Israel and not bringing their full luggage allotment is therefore a serious business in the Anglo communities in Israel. The email lists are full of people asking if “someone” is going to/from a specific place and asking if they can take a “small” package with them.

I have therefore perfected what I call the “commuter pack” suitcase. I pack as little as possible for myself, literally limiting myself to a few changes of clothes and that’s it. I pack my small stack of clothing in my smallest duffel, which I then pack inside a larger duffle or suitcase, so that I only need to check the one bag. For this trip, I even had a second “commuter pack” bag for the brochures/recruitment materials I needed to bring. This meant that I was traveling (outbound) with 4 suitcases.

Real commuters, those guys who go in every week or even every other week HATE to travel with luggage. Most of them prefer to walk onto the plane without having to clear their bags in security and to walk straight out of the airport without having to deal with baggage claim and customs. It is unfair to even think about asking one of these guys to bring a bag, since it really inconveniences them. There are however a minority of these guys who do shlep bags and they are more than happy to help out a neighbor – especially if the package is being dropped off/picked up in the USA without them having to worry about it.

So far, we have been pretty lucky with getting stuff from the USA. I pack the bags to within a half pound of the allowance and whenever the mail or various things back up, my mother in law or brother in law have somehow been able to find someone to take a package for us. When I have a chance, I bring in an extra bag or two and leave the extra suitcases behind for them to use when they find someone willing to take it.

Of course, it goes without saying that we only ask those people we know well to take the bags. Not because we don’t trust them, but because they have to trust us. Security is a major issue when traveling to/from Israel and I only take items from either a close relative (I took my brother’s mail to last week) or people I know very well, unless the item is mail and was sealed in my presence after I have checked the contents. I would never take a bag or package from someone I didn’t know. Nor should you.

While I was gone, Chaim joined thousands of people (including 5TJT Publisher/Editor Larry Gordon) in Chevron for Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah also known as Shabbat Chevron for the past several years. He made his own arrangements and had “an awesome time”, or so he says. I might get more information from him when I get home, but doubt it. He is after all a teenager. He has however, become quite passionate and defensive of Israel – a real change for him. Which we take as a great sign.

Mazal Tov to Chana and Dov Bienstock on the Bar Mitzva of their son Eli. I was able to surprise them at the simcha while in the USA and it was a special treat to see all those friends who attended.